No Sweat


In the Satyricon, a Roman novel written sometime around AD 60 (probably at the court of the emperor Nero), there’s a telling scene. Three con artists who are, awkwardly, too hard-up to own a slave are paying a man to haul their luggage on a journey. But he doesn’t turn out to be enthusiastic about the careless use they make of him:

“Do you think you’ve hired a beast of burden or a barge for hauling rocks?” he asked. “It’s a human being you’ve got working for you, not a damn nag. I’m a free man the same way you are, even if my father left me poor.” Not content with rude words, he kept lifting his leg and filling the road with an obscene noise and a nasty stink. Giton laughed at his impudence and farted along at the same volume.

If I had to sum up in one phrase the problems—political, economic, cultural, intellectual—of the Roman Empire in its decadence and instability, I would choose “contempt for work.” Rome’s vast conquests had provided a vast supply of slaves, and when the conquests slowed, slave breeding filled new demand. In this capitalist marketplace (unfettered, except for the participants’ legs), the price of nonslave labor was close to zero and its conditions were appalling, because plenty of slaves were normally available and nearly impossible to compete with: they worked for food and were of course easier to control than hired help. An unemployed mob of Roman citizens, surviving on the dole, was one result....

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About the Author

Sarah Ruden is a poet, essayist, and translator, and a visiting scholar at Brown University. She is the author of Paul among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, and her new translation of Augustine’s Confessions is forthcoming from Penguin/Random House.